Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea (Penguin Random House, 2021)

Though they lie far beyond the reach of sunlight, the depths of the ocean are anything but invariably dark. Instead, bioluminescent animals provide where nature cannot, creating a distinctive world of underwater light amidst the abysses and trenches that characterize the deep sea. This is the setting for Dr. Edith Widder’s Below the Edge of Darkness, a memoir chronicling a lifetime spent in these eerie regions. Inspired by a brief period of childhood blindness, Widder grew to become obsessed with the role that bioluminescence plays in the communication and operation of deep sea marine organisms. This reverence for the underwater world is palpable in Below the Edge of Darkness, with vivid descriptions that drag readers down to the depths alongside Widder, immersing them in an environment like no other.

The narrative follows the highs and lows of Widder’s career, from the triumph of being the first to capture footage of the elusive giant squid to the harrowing experience of being trapped within a sinking submersible as it filled with water. Below the Edge of Darkness synthesizes these anecdotes with a wealth of information about bioluminescent life in the deep sea, making the memoir as educational as it is enthralling. There is perhaps no one better to discuss these topics than Widder, a woman with decades of groundbreaking research under her belt. Through her hundreds of dives, massive contributions to the development of modern submersibles, and dedication to developing unobtrusive observation equipment, Widder’s work has transformed our understanding of the deep ocean and the organisms that call it home.

While Below the Edge of Darkness does heavily focus on Widder’s research and discoveries, her skilled story-telling and use of accessible language makes the book an enjoyable read for anyone, not just those with expertise in the field. Her writing style is, at times, deeply funny and the book’s tone is more akin to a conversation than a lecture. Though the excitement of interesting research characterizes much of the book, Widder also writes frankly about the nerves, funding struggles, and disappointing moments that have shaped her career trajectory. Widder’s unflagging passion for her work, even amidst a bevy of setbacks, makes her story as admirable as it is exciting. As you read, you find yourself rooting for Widder, with each recounted success thrilling you, as if it were your own.

Whether or not you begin your read with a love of the ocean, Widder’s story leaves you wanting to learn more about what lies below. At the beginning of Part III, she writes that, “the happiest people I know (a category in which I include myself) are those who have managed to hang on to a childish sense of wonder at discovering new things.” This sense of wonder is imbued in every page of Below the Edge of Darkness, making it a book that inspires as much as it entertains. Whether you’re curious about life in the deep sea, passionate about the environment, or just a fan of a good story, Below the Edge of Darkness is a must-read.

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Sasha Provost

Sasha Provost is a rising junior at Duke University pursuing a double major in Marine Science and Conservation and Public Policy. Additionally, she is a NOAA Hollings Scholar and a Duke Rachel Carson Scholar. She is passionate about the development of conservationist policy and the impact of effective resource management on marine ecosystems. At Duke, she is on the executive board of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance and writes for the Duke Chronicle.